by Shawn Tucker (bio)
On Sunday (August 4th) I substituted for Gospel Doctrine. Since the lesson was Lesson 31: "Sealed … for Time and for All Eternity," and it treated Section 132, I decided to address plural marriage as a very important element for the section's context. Or, in other words, I deliberately had a Gospel Doctrine lesson dealing with plural marriage. This post is divided into these sections: Why would I do this? How I planned on doing it? What seemed to be the results?
Why would I do this?
Part of my desire to do this was as a direct response to the recent New York Times article. It broke my heart to hear about faithful, wonderful members who found confusion and distress over this and other controversial topics. I'm not sure what I think about accusations of "whitewashing" LDS history, but I thought that this is at least a way to bring this out in the open. So my thinking was that addressing plural marriage on Sunday in Gospel Doctrine might be appropriate. Another reasons for doing this: I have been thinking a lot about this topic as I have been answering questions that come up in Institute. Also, it just plain interests me. Finally, I would say that the goal was to help those in my ward (here in North Carolina, where the members are pretty generic, Wonderful Mormons) see that we can talk about potentially controversial topics in ways that are calm, clear, and ultimately faith-building. I hoped that it would give them new tools to explore the topic, new skills to teach their children, and greater confidence to discuss this topic openly with one another and with those not of our faith.
I will also say that I have been thinking and stressing about this all week. Just before the lesson started, the missionaries told me that this would be an investigator's first Gospel Doctrine class. That made me seriously reconsider.
How I planned on doing it?
The plan was to use two handouts that I had made as a guide for the lesson. The first handout is actually the lesson plan. As you can see, the initial purpose is to talk about plural marriage as an essential context for Section 132. The next goal was to frame this discussion. I used this second handout for that purpose. As you can see on this handout, the first section allows class members to think about why we would or would not address controversial topics in Sunday School. I wanted this section to validate a number of different points of view about this entire lesson. But I also said that I had chosen to talk about it for the last two reasons. I wanted the discussion to make it less controversial and to encourage our faith. The next section is a list of potentially controversial items. I like how this brings such topics out of the background. The last items are meant as jokes. (I believe in the value of laughter in (potentially) relieving tension, and I think that hickey is about the funniest word in the English language. Oh, and my ward is used to that stuff.)
The next section, again on the second handout, lists what I believe are common notions about plural marriage. Please note that I made it clear that no one had to fill this out or turn it in. I merely wanted people to be able to see their ideas on the page. Then I talked about each item as best as I could, noting that the first four are inaccurate and that the remaining items are more accurate. [Disclaimer: I know that experts would have other items here. I thought that these last five items were fairly solid, factual items. They worked for me. If you do something like this, you can improve on mine]. I then planned on touching briefly on the remaining items on the front of this handout.
The plan was to then examine verses in section 132 to see how plural marriage is essential background information--Section 132:1-4, 29-32, and mention the verses addressed to Emma. From there I would talk very briefly about Emma and Oliver's experiences, as well as those of Benjamin Johnson and Heber and Vilate Kimball. I hoped that this would show a range of response to this difficult revelation. To round out this section of the lesson, I planned on telling a story from my mission and ask the class how they have responded during difficult trials of their faith.
I anticipated that this would take up half to two-thirds of the lesson time. The lesson would end with an examination of verses 19 and 20 from section 132. I would tell the class that we can take these verses out of their plural marriage context and see how they might apply to marriage today. The goal for this was to talk about the nature of these teachings and their current application.
What seemed to be the results?
I am used to teaching as a discussion facilitator, not a lecturer. This approach, to have a plan and to have a lesson so dependent upon handouts, is not what I'm used to. Oh, and being really hungry didn't help! Nor did having brand new ward members, an investigator, and the Bishop there. The first part of the lesson went as planned, but after talking about Emma and Oliver's responses as well as reading about Heber and Vilate Kimball, the lesson seemed flat and dull.
So at that point I told a story from my mission. I served in Chile in 1988-89, and during that time there was tremendous inactivity. In my first area, there was essentially an entire branch that went inactive when they were merged with another branch to form a ward. This tremendous inactivity caused me a lot of confusion and distress. I wondered why we were baptizing people into wards with little or no support for new converts. During that time, missionaries in my mission were specifically told not to spend time in retention and reactivation. I was so distressed that I felt like I was getting an ulcer. When I asked the Lord about it, it seemed to me that He said that I was useless to Him if I was sick and that I should do the work I had been called to do. Not knowing what else to do, I did exactly that. It pained me to think that at least some of the people I had brought to the gospel would not stay.
It still bothered me when I returned home. Soon after returning, I got a job at the MTC, and my first district happened to be going to my mission. I was very glad when they wrote me sometime after arriving in Chile that part of their work was reactivation and retention. That seemed to make sense to me, and it still does. But I wonder about my response in the mission field. I now believe that part of my response is actually my own pride. I was proud enough to believe that I knew best, better than my mission president and others, how things should be done. Another aspect of my pride was my own ugly prejudice that I was the one who knew better than the local, Chilean leadership how the Lord's work should be done. (Classic colonialist mindset, typical of a white male used to patriarchy and male privilege!) And, bless their hearts (I do live in the South!), some missionaries have an exaggerated sense of their abilities and importance. And that was me (still is, hence this blog post :-)). This experience was pivotal for me in learning humility, in learning to let God be God and let those He has chosen direct His work.
So, I told this story and asked others to mention times when their faith and humility helped them make it through a difficult experience. This gave me a way to return to and round off the discussion of plural marriage. Relating this experience seemed to make this historical conflict seem concrete and real. The rest of the lesson was easy and just what one would expect, with good comments and insights about eternal marriage.
I should also note that there were some very good, honest questions, including a question from the Bishop about how prevalent plural marriage was. Others also felt free to ask honest questions they had. Finally, when the lesson was over, many people seemed pleased with what we had discussed and learned. One man in particular, a man who has been a member for less than year, expressed tremendous gratitude for finally getting some clarity about this topic. Oh, and the investigator did not seem distressed. In fact, I happened to go with the missionaries this week to visit her, and she asked about Joseph Smith and plural marriage. I reiterated that we believe Joseph to have been a prophet of God who was called to practice plural marriage like Abraham, Jacob, and others. This seemed like a very satisfactory answer, and we were able to return to the standard lessons. I found out that she has many family members who are strongly against the church. If nothing else, they cannot surprise her with plural marriage.
Oh, and one more brief observation. We believe that some poor Jewish girl got pregnant by God and that the death of that Child expiates our sins and makes it so everyone will resurrect. We believe that the father of the faithful was told to murder his son. We believe God walked on water, fed 5,000 (with some take out from Panera and Red Lobster), and changed water to wine, which, by the way, as Mormons, we would not be allowed to drink. Mormonism is only slightly more offensive than Christianity in general. Every Sunday we talk about what some might see as controversial (at least). Indeed, we teach it, affirm it, and find that, daily, the Holy Ghost witnesses that all of this outrageous, offensive, absurd, and seemingly irrational stuff is true. It is all as true as the wild, mind-boggling notion that all of us, each one of us, is a cherished daughter or son of Heavenly Parents. Could anything be more potentially absurd, hubristic, and just crazy but at the same time real, reliable, and true? Plural marriage—easy peasy!